Nine years ago Thursday, Bengals safety Michael Thomas, in his first NFL game for the Dolphins, outfoxed The GOAT.
On Tuesday, Thomas, the oldest player for the Bengals in the week they play the NFL's oldest player, emerged from the defensive backs' weekly off-day meeting with the message he had just delivered before they take the field this week preparing for Tom Brady's Buccaneers in a Sunday game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Tampa Bay.
They had been watching tape of the 49ers win over the Bucs in San Francisco and Thomas had noticed an item where after the game 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw had asked Brady to sign the ball that he had intercepted. Thomas has a ball like that from from Dec. 15, 2013 locked in his trophy case in his Houston home.
"Do I need to call my wife and ask her to get it out of there so that I can take it Sunday and get him to sign it?" asked Thomas, who was definitely kidding.
At 32, Thomas may be the oldest Bengal, but that makes him 13 years younger than Brady. So that makes rookie safety Dax Hill born the year Brady was a rookie in 2000. The other rookie back there, Cam Taylor-Britt, was born the year before in 1999, a few days after No. 3 Michigan lost to No. 11 Michigan State, 34-31, despite Brady's 30 of 41 passing.
So Thomas was definitely not kidding about the carnage the 45-year-old Brady can still heap on secondaries. Thomas, the special teams captain, hardly plays from scrimmage these days, but he's got plenty of knowledge to dispense from when he did.
"Don't think you're going to confuse him. He has seen too much football," Thomas said. "Don't try to do too much. Whatever he feels like is his guy in the game plan, we call those guys "the fish," he'll check your oil. Yeah, he's probably going to check Cam's oil. But it doesn't matter. He'll go where he thinks he can make a play. He's seen every defense and he knows the weaknesses of all of them."
Thomas played Brady plenty in his five seasons with the Dolphins. When they see each other on the field before or after a game, there is a nod of respect and maybe some words.
"Oh yeah, we'll say something," Thomas said. "There's mutual respect there. You respect a guy, especially if he's made a few plays on you."
There were those Dolphins-Pats games, but he made sure he told his mates about when he was playing against New England for the Giants in 2019 in a game Brady won, 35-14. The New York defensive coordinator was James Bettcher, now the Bengals linebackers coach, and he had a package where he used Thomas as a "big nickel," and put him in there with fellow safeties Jabrill Peppers and Antoine Bethea.
"I was basically going in for Sam Hubbard," Thomas said of the Bengals defensive end. "We line up and I'm messing around in the slot. I'm about to come in and blitz off the slot. As soon as Tom Brady breaks the huddle, he points at me and says, 'Wait a minute, check, check, 31 is a D-End.'"
Three years later and Thomas is still amazed. The Giants had never been in that look before. There was no sign of it on tape. And there was Brady pointing at him.
"That just shows his high level of thinking. You can't confuse this guy. He knows what he's looking at. He knows where the ball should go," Thomas said. "Once he pointed that out, I said to myself, 'OK, I can't fool him.' So I just lined up off the edge, lined up to do my job and just win that down."
That's what Thomas did back on Dec. 15, 2013. Back when Brady checked Thomas' oil more than Sunoco.
He had no choice. Thomas had arrived in Miami that Thursday, a year out of Stanford as an undrafted free agent. He had yet to play in an NFL game and was coming cross-country from the 49ers practice squad.
When he met Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland before the Thursday practice, Ireland turned Thomas around and told him, "Just go practice. We brought you here for one reason. We want you to vise Matthew Slater. That's it."
Which was a Hall-of-Fame task in itself given Slater's mountain of Pro Bowls for making tackles on punts and everything else special teams. The Dolphins secondary coach, now Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, barely had time to shake his hand.
"He was getting ready for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. He had no time for a practice squad safety," Thomas said.
Anarumo's assistant gave him a cursory review of the scheme, but he was there for Matthew Slater. Until the beginning of the fourth quarter. A Miami cornerback went down and here was the special teams coach asking him to play safety on the kickoff team.
Thomas had never done it, but the coach told him to just stay square and don't let anybody past him. So here he was running downfield and dropping Josh Boyce on the 14-yard line. To Thomas, it seemed like his new teammates were jumping on him and leaning over him to check the name on his jersey at the same time. "Good job, Thomas," they were saying and that was fine because he didn't know them either.
"I'm thinking, 'I just made a tackle in an NFL game. I'm on the stat sheet,'" Thomas said. "There's proof I played."
There would be even more later in the drive when another cornerback went down. Now there was Anarumo approaching him. "Hey, 31, you played the slot in college, right? That's all we need you to do. Don't worry. Our safeties will get you lined up and tell you what to do. You know how to play Cover Four and you know how to play man."
"OK," Thomas said. "Let's do it."
Suddenly, Thomas looked up and he's across from the real Julian Edelman and the real Danny Amendola, Brady's go-to-guys. And there is Brady, maybe not the GOAT yet (this was five years before 28-3) but still the face of the league, staring at him. Even if his teammates didn't know who he was, Brady did.
"Tom Brady knows his personnel. He knows 31 is a practice squad guy that just got there," Thomas says. "He got to the line, 'Check. Check.' He puts two and three close. Amendola is tight and the (running) back was wide and he did a quick exchange to see if I had my eyes right. If I could play the push and pass off. He dumped it to the back inside and I made the play for my first NFL tackle (from scrimmage). I can play football. If that drive had ten plays, he went at me six times."
Then Brady is in the red zone with 27 seconds left, down 24-20.
"He's driving," Thomas said. "Same old story, right? Tom Brady at the end of the game driving for the winning touchdown."
The Dolphins go man and Thomas, who hasn't played the slot since he started there for Stanford, is matched on Amendola. Brady goes for him in the end zone on an inside fade. Thomas and Amendola are both looking up in the air running for the same spot. Amendola gets his hands on it and as they fall Thomas keeps fighting through the ball and it pops out.
Then it's fourth down from the Miami 14 with seven seconds left. Brady time, but not this time. Miami calls a timeout and Anarumo says, "Let's run double- double and get Mike Thomas some help in the slot."
"Thank God," Thomas says to himself and with the slot doubled, the safety is on the inside route and that frees up Thomas.
"I started drifting back in the end zone to protect the paint," Thomas said. "Next thing I know, I see the ball. Slow motion. Like a movie. I catch it. The instincts kick in. I just lay down in the end zone. Did I just get my first NFL interception? From Tom Brady? To win the game? I'm screaming, I'm crying. It's the craziest moment of my career and my life."
The Dolphins take a knee and Thomas took a lesson.
"Tom Brady knows. He knows who you are and he knows where to go with the ball. He's still GOAT and we respect that," Thomas said nine years to the week. "I have faith in our guys that we'll do the studying and the preparation. When you play him, you have to be on top of your game. You have to be at your best. We'll be ready."
Mrs. Thomas is keeping the ball in the case as the Bengals look for another one.